Matthew Sekeres will be blogging throughout 2009 world junior hockey championship.
Signing off from Ottawa
So, what are the chances that Canada wins a sixth straight gold at the 2010 world junior championships in Saskatoon and Regina? In a word: excellent.
Ten players from this year's team are eligible to return next year. Now, there is almost zero chance that all 10 will return, but the upcoming group of players born in 1991 and 1992 looks good, so Canada should backfill with some good-looking players such as Windsor Spitfires left winger Taylor Hall.
Here are the 10 players eligible to return, just know that John Tavares is likely to be playing in Atlanta, or Long Island, or Tampa or some other NHL wasteland. And know that Cody Hodgson will likely be stepping into Mats Sundin's shoes in Vancouver, and that Alex Pietrangelo will be patrolling St. Louis's blue line.
C John Tavares
C Cody Hodgson
C Patrice Cormier
RW Jordan Eberle
RW Evander Kane
LW Stefan Della Rovere
D Colten Teubert
D Tyler Myers
D Alex Pietrangelo
D Ryan Ellis
'No chance' of team wearing Hockey Canada logo in 2010
Dr. René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, has just concluded a press conference with Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson. Some highlights:
- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is not too fussy about staging regular-season games in Russia next autumn, and there remains no agreement for NHL players to participate in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. "Gary has some anti-Russia sentiments," Fasel said. The NHL, of course, has gone through some recent battles with the upstart Kontinental Hockey League.
- There is "no chance" that the 2010 Canadian Olympic teams will be allowed to wear the Hockey Canada logo on their sweaters. Fasel said every other country has a reasonable solution to the International Olympic Committee's ban on sport federation logos. Fasel said that had the Canadian Olympic Committee supported Hockey Canada's request for an exemption, the logo could have been used. In other words, he concurred with Nicholson, who has consistently said that the COC, not the IOC, was keeping the logo off the still-to-be-designed sweaters. Nicholson said that Hockey Canada will decide on a design in the next two months. Fasel added that the situation has become "too political."
- Fasel still believes that an agreement will be reached with the NHL and the NHL Players' Association for the professionals to play in the 2014 Olympics. Again, the ball is in Bettman's court. Fasel said the NHLPA is on board. "For me it is quite clear, we cannot miss having the NHL players come to Sochi," Fasel said.
Tavares becoming a Knight?
There's information out there that Canadian forward John Tavares will be traded by the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals on Tuesday.
The word is Tavares will be shipped to the London Knights for a package that includes right wing Christian Thomas, the son of former NHL player Steve Thomas.
The Knights are in first place in the Midwest Division with 59 points, having lost just eight games in regulation and one in a shootout. The Generals are in third place of the East Division.
The Canadian Hockey League placed a moratorium on trading players participating in the world junior championship while the tournament is taking place after Canadian goaltender Steve Mason, now of the Columbus Blue Jackets, learned that he had been dealt hours before the Canadians played a semi-final game last year.
Boychuk's ankle still tender
Canadian left wing Zach Boychuk did not participate in the morning skate on Monday so he could rest his injured ankle for the gold medal game against Sweden.
Boychuk is expected to play, but he is admittedly not at full strength and his minutes looked to be reduced (ice-time is not kept by tournament statisticians) in Canada's shootout win over Russia on Saturday. Boychuk hurt his ankle against the Americans last Wednesday.
Boychuk's limitation is a significant situation for Canada. He was among the team's top six forwards, and he played in all specialty situations.
He also quickly won over head coach Pat Quinn. The coach went out of his way to praise Boychuk's all-around game after a tournament-opening victory against the Czech Republic last week. Quinn said Boychuk "set the tone."
With Boychuk not at 100 per cent healthy, Quinn gave six forwards regular shifts in the overtime session against Russia. If the going gets tight against Sweden in the third period, expect to see lots of the following forwards: John Tavares, Cody Hodgson, Jordan Eberle, Patrice Cormier, Angelo Esposito and Evander Kane.
Two nuggets before the gold
Wanted to address a couple of topics heading into the gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden on Monday.
First, you might read or hear that this game amounts to a showdown between Canadian forward John Tavares and Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman - the top two prospects for the 2009 NHL draft.
If this was the bronze-medal game, or if it was happening in the preliminary round, there would be some credence to that. That was the main storyline going into the tournament, but that's not the case now. Not when it's for gold between two teams that have a combined 10-0 record.
For starters, Hedman hasn't even been the best defenceman on his team - that honor goes to Erik Karlsson, an Ottawa Senators draft pick - and focusing just on him discounts the excellence of Sweden's team, one through 22.
Meanwhile, Tavares has been extraordinary, and might have separated himself from Hedman. Still, the Canadian story has been about two exhilarating victories more than Tavares.
"People have attempted to make this a Hedman-Tavares thing," Canada coach Pat Quinn said Sunday. "It's a Canada thing."
Second, Swedish forward Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi said earlier this week that Canada would soil their pants - he used a more common four-letter synonym that begins with s - if Sweden went up 2-0 in the gold medal game, and boldly predicted victory.
Canadian player after Canadian player was asked about the statement this week, and didn't find one that said it was on the bulletin board. Quinn dismissed the comment as well.
Now, this could be a group of players who are motivated solely by the stakes at hand - a fifth consecutive world juniors gold medal - and can ignore all disparaging remarks from the opposition. Or, the Canadians might be trying to avoid providing their own bulletin-board material by commenting on Svensson-Paajarvi's bulletin-board material.
If Canada wins, the comments will surely be brought up again in post-game interviews. We'll see what they say then.
(An aside: Svensson-Paajarvi and Karlsson are real cards. In interviews, they exude an enthusiasm not typical of Swedish NHL players. As someone who has covered Mats Sundin and the Sedin twins - all very professional and polite, but not exactly bursting with personality - can't wait for these gabbers to land permanently in North America. The NHL could use their colour. Let's hope nobody beats it out of them. On this continent, the professional sports establishment has a way of turning interesting people into bores. The NHL is probably the worst, followed closely by the NFL.)
Janus has impressed
Sweden's Jacob Markstrom has the best numbers, and Canada's Dustin Tokarski may yet steal the show at the World Juniors, but my vote for the all-star goaltender of this tournament goes to Slovakia's Jaroslav Janus - whether his team wins bronze or not.
Slovakia has just fallen 5-3 to Sweden in the semi-finals, but Janus kept them in it until a barrage of three goals in the third. He wound up facing 50 shots and allowed four goals (the fifth was an empty netter) one night after facing 47 shots in Slovakia's 5-3 stunner over the U.S. in the quarter-finals. Slovakia's coach just said that Janus's teammates let him down against the Swedes. No argument here.
Slovakia plays the Canada-Russia loser for bronze, and make no mistake, they are delighted to have gotten this far and to have hung with another hockey powerhouse (Slovakia led 2-1 heading into the third).
Remarkably, Janus went undrafted by the NHL last season, even though he plays for the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters. But after this tournament, and those performances against the supremely talented Swedes and Americans, here's betting that Janus gets a belated look.
More on Boychuk
Zach Boychuk, the ailing Canadian left wing, left his team's practice on Friday after about 20 minutes, as was his plan before the on-ice workout.
Boychuk, who injured an ankle in a 7-4 victory over the U.S. on Wednesday, expects to skate on Saturday morning and said he will almost certainly play in the semi-final later that night against either Russia or the Czech Republic.
Boychuk said he is not 100 per cent comfortable and that he suffered through five minutes of soreness today when he first started skating. Head coach Pat Quinn echoed his player's assessment of the situation, saying the Carolina Hurricanes draft pick will play.
Expect a lot of Czech-ing
The Czech Republic has a very basic game-plan for its quarter-final game against Russia.
Talked with the Czech coach, Marek Sykora, and captain David Stich on Friday morning and they think scoring the first goal will be paramount because the Russians will then start playing as individuals. They also think the Russians will capitulate against a physical style. The Czech Republic has 12 players who play in the Canadian Hockey League, so it is familiar with the North American style.
Canada pounded the Czechs 8-1 in the tournament opener for both teams, but since that game, they've been better. The Czechs lost 3-2 to the U.S. and Sykora said that in the third period, they finally came together as a group and started playing with aggression.
Sadly, the Czechs don't intend to entertain. They will dump. They will chase. They will shoot from all angles and if they get that all-important first goal, they will recoil into a defensive shell.
Subban still on defence
There's a report out there that P.K. Subban will be moved to forward for Canada's semi-final game on Saturday against the Czechs or Russians, or even for the rest of the tournament. The Canadians are practising right now at ScotiaBank Place, and Subban is skating with the defencemen.
Subban is Canada's swing man. If Zach Boychuk, who is also practising, can't go on Saturday, he will be replaced by Subban. Boychuk suffered an ankle injury against the U.S. on Thursday, but he looks good now and still has another day of recovery.
Showing no mercy
The final day of preliminary round action at the tournament promises to be the best - and most competitive - with two first-place showdowns. Canada and the U.S. are battling for top billing in Group A, while the Swedes and Russians are vying for the quarter-final bye in Group B.
But to date, the tournament has been short on compelling games. And that has raised talk that a mercy rule needs to be enacted. If not that, than the 2009 championships should certainly have shown the International Ice Hockey Federation that it has no business expanded this field from 10 to 12 teams, as was proposed last year.
To date, there has only been one one-goal game: a 4-3 win by the U.S. over the Czechs. And there have only been two two-goal games: 3-1 victories by Sweden over Slovakia and Finland.
On the flip side, consider this ugly evidence:
- There have been nine games where the final margin was five goals or more.
- On Tuesday, the four winning teams outscored the losers 31-2.
- Kazakhstan has been outscored 36-0 in its first three games, and Latvia is 0-4 with a goal differential of minus-21.
You can say that these tournaments are cyclical, and that the bottom-feeders can be more competitive in years to come. But if this trend continues in Saskatoon and Regina next year, than something needs to be done.
Sekeres: Pat Quinn and 'You People'
For people who knew Pat Quinn early this decade - i.e. before his heart scare - when he was the omnipotent leader of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was a grizzly bear with the press. He didn't much care for Toronto's hyper-aggressive inquisitors, and we were reminded of that on a regular basis.
But with Canada's world junior team, Quinn has been more teddy than grizzly. He has taken on a grandfatherly aura, buoyed by the young pups in his midst and, perhaps, the realization that this tournament might represent his final moments on a bench. (Though Quinn wants another NHL job, he turns 66 next month and that might cause some reservations for clubs wondering just how long he could possibly coach).
On Tuesday, there was a Quinn moment circa 2001. For those of us who enjoyed verbal jousting with the larger-than-life coach back in the day, it was a welcome snippet. There's still a battler in there, and if you poke the right places, the grizzly will roar.
On Monday, Quinn mentioned that the U.S. had constructed its team to beat the Canadians. A day later, he was pressed for details: who told him that? Suddenly, out came the Fighting Irishman.
"Nobody came to me. It was just rumours out there. Probably started by you people!" he snapped.
"You people." That's classic Quinn - an indiscriminate phrase for everyone who has ever held a microphone, camera or notepad and asked an uncomfortable question.
And for anyone who covered Quinn during his heyday with the Leafs, or the Vancouver Canucks for that matter, the phrase "you people" generally signalled that the uncooperative coach was about to cut his media session short.
But on this day, after his famous utterance, Quinn was jokingly reminded that he sounded like his former self, the coach we knew when the maple leaf on his chest was blue instead of red. A good laugh was had by all, and minutes later, Quinn was initiating the humour.
Asked about the beefy American team, he said: "It's too much McDonald's. We're much healthier."
Sekeres: Stephen Harper can't skate
He came, he shook hands, he exchanged gifts, and he left. So went the whirlwind visit of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ScotiaBank Place on Tuesday.
The prime minister spent only a few minutes at the Canadian team bench for a quick photo op and exchange of gifts with head coach Pat Quinn before practice. (Harper got a hockey sweater, while the team got commemorative pucks with the Government of Canada seal). Harper also toured the Canadian team's dressing room, and Quinn said it went mighty quiet when the First Citizen walked in.
Two hockey notes about the PM:
- His son, Ben, who joined him on the visit, apparently plays for a powerhouse. Ben Harper's team is participating in a minor hockey tournament in Ottawa over the holiday break and, according to Quinn, it is also 3-0 and has bested Canada's goal-differential margin (28-2).
- While Harper is writing a book about hockey, and while his staffers describe him as "an avid hockey fan" (as though a prime minister could afford to look anything but in Canada), the elder Harper could apparently learn a thing or two from young Ben. Before the visit, when a staffer was asked whether the PM would be donning the blades at practice, the response came that Harper is "not a great skater."
Sekeres: 'Stephen' set to stop by
There is perhaps nothing in Canadian society worth more political capital than a Maple Leaf-adorned hockey sweater, so it comes as no surprise that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is honing in on the action by attending the Canadian team's practice on Tuesday. These days, the Prime Minister can use all the support he can get, especially from a bunch of fresh-faced kids who will make for a friendly photo op.
The Canadian team has an off day Tuesday before the big New Year's Eve showdown with the U.S. on Wednesday, so at least the PM picked the appropriate time. His distraction won't come on game day, only during a practice.
When asked about the state visit, Canada head coach Pat Quinn said that he and the kids would be excited to meet "Stephen" before correcting himself and stating: "Mr. Harper, I probably should call him."
And somewhere in Ottawa, a U.S. diplomat familiar with President George W. Bush's foot-in-mouth visit to Canada several years back was thinking: 'Just don't call him Steve.'
Sekeres: Some solace for the Sens
OTTAWA -- The Ottawa Senators have lost seven of their last nine games and have been kicked out of their building for the World Junior tournament, creating an eight-game road trip. The Sens sit 12th in the Eastern Conference, have five games remaining on this epic roadie, and there is speculation about the future of head coach Craig Hartsburg.
But there is good news, Sens fans.
On Monday, after a 10-1 demolition of Latvia, the head coach of Sweden's junior team was hit with a barrage of questions about manchild defenceman Victor Hedman, the potential first overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft.
After being peppered by several Canadian reporters on several Hedman-related topics, Par Marts asked why the press corps was so interested in just one player.
Why not? Came the response. Who's better than Hedman?
Marts nodded his head to the left, where defenceman Erik Karlsson was doing interviews. Karlsson, the Senators' first pick in the 2008 draft, is better, the coach said. Or at least he was better on Monday, with a goal and two assists to Hedman's single helper.
Perhaps Sens general manager Bryan Murray can ask Sweden to just leave Karlsson behind.
Sekeres: Subban may be forced to step forward
OTTAWA - If Canada's Stefan Della Rovere can't play on Sunday afternoon against Kazakhstan, than defenceman P.K. Subban will play forward in his place.
Della Rovere, a Washington Capitals draft pick who plays for the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts, suffered a bruised shin after blocking a shot in the late stages of Canada's 8-1 victory over the Czech Republic on Friday.
Della Rovere left practice after about 10 minutes on Saturday. Subban moved up and skated on a line with Patrice Cormier and Evander Kane.
Della Rovere's injury is about to test Hockey Canada's unprecedented decision to take eight defencemen and just 12 forwards to the tournament. Minus Subban, Canada still has seven blueliners, and Ryan Ellis certainly earned more ice time after his impressive, three-point performance in the opener.
But Canada is also just one more injured forward away from playing shorthanded up front.
Sekeres: Subban supplies advice
OTTAWA - Defenceman PK Subban is one of just four returning players on Canada's world junior hockey championships team, and offered some words of advice to his rookie teammates on Friday morning.
"Enjoy it," he said. "Jeez, the wait is finally over and the first game is here."
Subban said he remembers several sensations from his first game at the world juniors last year, which also began with a game against the Czech Republic… only this game was in the Czech Republic. The Montreal Canadiens draft pick remembers the European drum beats and their vibrations in the Canadian bench.
"I was a little bit nervous," admitted Subban, who plays for the OHL's Belleville Bulls. "It was my first time on a stage like that."
Subban, incidentally, has changed from sweater No. 6 to No. 5. The Canadian team will honour late Vancouver Canucks and Canadian junior defenceman Luc Bourdon by wearing "LB" stickers on their helmets and by taking his former number out of circulation for this tournament. The stickers are also worn by the Canucks.
Bourdon, a New Brunswick native, won two gold medals with the world juniors in 2006 and 2007. He died in May in a motorcycle accident.
Sekeres: Tokarski tapped
OTTAWA - Dustin Tokarski of the WHL's Spokane Chiefs will start in goal for Canada on Friday against the Czech Republic. Tokarski was selected over Chet Pickard, of the Tri-City Americans, for the opening game of the world junior hockey championships.
"It's going to be nerve-racking at the start no matter what," Tokarski said Friday at ScotiaBank Place following Canada's morning skate.
Head coach Pat Quinn said he relied heavily on the Hockey Canada staff in making the goaltending decision. Quinn said he had no hard plan for using his goaltenders, meaning that the starting goalie could be a game-to-game decision during the preliminary round. He said Tokarski, who won a Memorial Cup last spring, has a little more experience than Pickard and that he was "rated higher" coming out of the selection camp and pre-tournament exhibition games.
Asked how he would feel before a packed, pro-Canada house with the anthem playing, Tokarski said: "Awesome. That's the best part…it will be a very patriotic moment."